Day 326 - Ribeka

Day 326 - Ribeka (1st person I approached)
November 22, 2014 - I say this as a general rule of thumb, and without scientific evidence. The people who tell me they have ‘nothing that’s too interesting to tell,’ are, for the most part, completely off the mark. 


Ribeka was working on her computer, headphones in, and looking focussed. I once had a ‘rule’ about not approaching people who were plugged in. I'm so glad I ditched that one! She started to smile as I explained to her what I’m doing, and immediately said she’d chat with me. 


“I was born in Osaka, Japan. My father is Korean, but he was born in Japan, and my mother is Japanese. We moved to East Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada), when I was just one year old, and I grew up here,” Ribeka said. She is the second of four children, with an older brother and a younger brother and sister. Her parents separated when Ribeka was seven years old.

“My mother had lived in Vancouver when she was in high-school, for a number of years and speaks English. To be honest, my father, still to this day doesn’t speak much English. When they separated, all four of us kids stayed living with him, and he became our primary caregiver. He was a stay at home Dad. Our mother worked and supported the family. She was a very busy woman and it meant we didn’t see her that frequently,” she told me. 


“We lived somewhat in this dual world of traditions. Our house was an Asian household and as such, with me being the oldest girl, I had to help out with chores that my father saw as traditionally in the role of a girl. I had to do more around the house than my brothers did, because I’m a girl. At the same time, I had all these western influences and television programs that showed the roles of males and females as being equal, and I saw what my friends lives were like. I think it was also because my father just needed help raising four kids on his own. I had some resentments about it when I was younger, but as an adult, I understand,” she said.

“He did the very best that he could.”


“I enjoyed school and did well in my classes. My father used to tell us that going to school was our job. I played all the sports that were available and was involved in many groups after school. I liked the camaraderie of team sports. It was a good way for a group to come together, and make friends. I still play ice hockey. I’m on a team and really enjoy that,” she said. 


“I went to Simon Fraser University (SFU) right after high school. I always knew I would go to university. It’s assumed as an Asian child that you will. I liked science in high-school, so I went into studying bio-chemistry. University was hard. I liked high-school far more. In high-school, there’s a lot more structure and you know what to do. I felt that in university, it was too free. You’re given the work and told to go do it. High school was my favourite,” she said laughing.

“I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in bio-chem, and then didn’t know what to do with it. In order to pursue a career in that field, it means more schooling, a Master’s degree at least. A Bachelor's degree isn’t going to open any doors in bio-chem. Had I known that at the outset, I don’t know that I would have taken the same stream, but at eighteen, what do you know?”


“I needed to find a job. As soon as I graduated, I went to BCIT (British Columbia Institute of Technology). I took the Medical Laboratory Technologist program. It has a number of work placements throughout the course. The hope is that, one of the job placements you work at during schooling, will hire you once you’ve completed your training. BCIT is an excellent school to go to and they work hard to support students finding jobs,” she said. 


Ribeka got a job working in the blood transfusions lab at VGH (Vancouver General Hospital).

“I worked at VGH. I did some work at Children’s Hospital and Canadian Blood Services as well. The lab conducts tests on blood. For example, if someone came into Emergency, a sample of their blood would be sent to the lab to determine the type. We'd test for any other anti-bodies, then if they needed blood, we’d supply what was needed,” she said.

“I did that for eleven years. I had made my way through a few different different jobs. I liked the team effort. There might be five or six of you working together at any one time and it was really collaborative. It’s like having a work family. I had worked to a level where I was supporting supervision and assisting with setting up protocols and processes.”


Ribeka had interviewed for a work promotion that would see her responsibilities grow.

“About three years before this, I had added my name to the Volunteer base for the United Nations (UN). It’s been an almost life-long dream of mine to do volunteer work somewhere in the world for the UN. The day I had to give my decision on whether or not I wanted the promotion, I got an email from the UN Volunteer division.  They had a position available for me. I hadn’t even told my bosses anything about adding my name to this list,” she said.

“I took the position with the UN, sold my belongings, gave up my apartment and left my job,” she told me.


“The UN have camps in situations around the world. I was going to work in South Sudan, in northeastern Africa. We flew to Uganda for a week of orientation, and then I was flown into South Sudan. I spent the next two-and-a-half years there,” she said. Ribeka was helping to establish medical blood labs throughout South Sudan.

“At the time when I arrived there, it was peaceful. There’s been years of civil unrest of course, but everything was peaceful. It was such a stark contrast to the way I worked here in Vancouver. There were only three of us trained as medical lab technologists. The UN really just said ‘do what you think is best, set it up as you think it should be’ and we were left to devise a system,” she said.

“I also worked with NGO’s (non-government organizations) like Doctors without Borders, providing them with medical blood lab support.”


The UN pays a base salary to volunteers, depending on the role one is fulfilling.

“We lived in a compound, essentially a fenced-in parking lot, about the size of two football fields. Our accommodation was in converted shipping containers. They had two windows, a door, a little hotplate. It was actually quite comfortable. For the first few months months I shared with one other person, there were just so many of us. Then I got my own container, and you’d get moved around sometimes. From above, it would have looked like row after row of shipping containers. The far end section was for the military that were there to protect us. Support came from other countries who had sent military personnel,” she told me.


“Every six weeks, the UN insisted that you take a week off as free time, and leave the country. We could fly to Uganda for free, or pay for our own flights somewhere else for the week. Flights anywhere in Africa are expensive, but I tried to make the most of the time I had there. I probably saw twenty different countries while I was in Africa,” she said. 


Last December (2013), Ribeka was on a week off and had flown to Hawaii.

“I was on the beach, looking at Twitter and Facebook and it was exploding with messages from friends of mine back in Sudan. The violence had escalated and things were getting intense, and fast. I felt guilty for being in Hawaii and I just wanted to get back to Sudan. All I could think about was getting back,” she said. 


There were essentially two Sudanese tribes that were fighting against one another. The majority tribe was nearing genocide of the minority tribe.

“When I returned to the camp, it was chaos. With the escalation of fighting, thousands of people showed up at the camp looking for safety. We opened the gates and let them in. There were over twenty thousand IDP’s as they're called. ‘Internally Displaced Person’s’ - mostly women and children. They took over the military end of the camp. Everyone worked together, and the work changed as well. We were now dealing with babies being born and people having gun shot wounds. You just put your head down and focus on the work. The team supporting each other and working together,” she said.


After two-and-a-half years, Ribeka came home.

“I’ve been back for about three months now. I took some time to travel after I left South Sudan. I went to Ethiopia and Madagascar. I travelled for about a month and the came back to Vancouver in August. It was nice weather and I spent time with family and friends catching up. I had been back a week and started back at work. My bosses had kept my position available for me, so it was good to be able to step into a job and not have to stress about that,” she said. 


When Ribeka was leaving Sudan, some of the others, who had been volunteering with the UN for years, cautioned her.

“They told me to take it easy, and to be careful when coming home. I assured them I’d be fine, but I know now what they meant. You spend so much time tense and focussed on work, you kind of shut off what is actually going on around you. It was when I came home and had time to reflect that I realized that on more than a couple of occassions, I was in some serious danger,” she said. Ribeka recounted how, on  Halloween a few weeks ago, she first heard firecrackers, and her immediate reaction was to think it was gunfire.

“I’ve had time now to settle back and to allow myself to let go of the tension and being guarded all the time. It’s challenging as well, because it’s hard to explain to people who haven’t been in that type of situation just what it feels like. Some of these things I haven’t spoken with anyone about,” she told me.


“I’m back at work, and involved in a really big project right now. There are three agencies that are combining resources and going computerized, and I’m supporting that work. It’s twelve hour days and lots of team work. I’m glad to have something to jump into. Looking back, Sudan was the hardest and the best two-and-a-half years of my life. And it’s good to be home.” #notastranger